No matter how his absence following an open tibia-fibula fracture is spun, no matter what context it's put in, there is no bright side. The Pacers are going to stumble, slip and ultimately fall without him. There is no preventing it, only making it easier to deal with.
All of that is a given. And with regression unavoidable, there's no use entertaining the question some will try so hard to ask: Will the Pacers survive without George?
Not at all. Not in the way they're accustomed to surviving and competing.
Struggle is the only certainty. And figuring out how deep the Pacers' collapse will stretch is the only issue worth debating.
Loss Upon Loss
Replacing George isn't possible. It never could be.
What he can do for the Pacers won't be found anywhere. His 21.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game were indispensable. He gave the Pacers 36-plus minutes of quality effort every night on both ends of the floor.
Opponents converted just 38 percent of their shots against him, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). He assisted on nearly 18 percent of the Pacers' made baskets when on the floor, the third-best mark of anyone who appeared in at least 30 games for them. Their 22nd-ranked offense was even worse with George off the floor.
|2013-14 Pacers||Off. Rtg.||Rank Equivalent||Def. Rtg.||Rank||Net Rtg.||Rank|
What are they supposed to do now? Rely on someone else? If so, who?
Not Lance Stephenson.
Losing Stephenson to the Charlotte Hornets further compounds the Pacers' bleak situation. Their ceiling would always be lower without George, but at least with Stephenson they would have a potential star and someone to headline a typically anemic offense and staunch perimeter defense.
They don't have that now.
The loss of @StephensonLance only becomes magnified now with Paul George likely to miss the season for Indiana. 2 huge losses.— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) August 2, 2014
George and Stephenson were the Pacers' two best players.
When they were on the floor together, the Pacers outscored opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions. They combined to assist on 38.9 percent of the team's assisted field goals. They accounted for 35.5 percent of the Pacers' total points scored last season.
This is a huge deal. The Pacers don't know what it's like to soldier on without them.
Only two of their 25 most used five-man lineups didn't include George or Stephenson. The one that saw the most time—a quintet of Rasual Butler, Ian Mahinmi, Luis Scola, Donald Sloan and Evan Turner—logged a not-so-whopping 28 minutes together and was outscored by an average of 26 points per 100 possessions.
One was rarely playing without the other. More importantly, the Pacers were hardly ever playing without both.
Of the 1,058 total minutes the Pacers played without George last season, Stephenson was on the floor for 717 of them, or 67.8 percent. Stephenson was on the bench for 1,203 minutes; George was on the floor for 863 of those (71.7 percent).
Almost nothing about the Pacers' circumstances will be familiar next season. Their rotation will seem foreign when it's no longer anchored by George and/or Stephenson. That's going to hurt.
Statistically and psychologically, it's going to hurt.
Who Will Step Up?
In lieu of an actual George replacement, different players will need to step up.
Who will those players be?
If only the Pacers knew. That's most of the problem moving forward: They don't know. The rest of their squad is largely unpredictable compared to George (and Stephenson).
There aren't a whole lot of options for the Pacers. And the ones they have are either shouldering all they can (West) or complete and utter wild cards (Hibbert, Stuckey, Chris Copeland, etc.).
Hitting the free-agent market also won't yield some instant cure-all.
Shawn Marion is the best realistic free-agent option available, and the Pacers are neither willing to spend what's necessary to sign him nor can they offer him the opportunity he's seeking:
Pacers' Larry Bird re-affirmed at press conference team will not go into luxury tax. Will get 5.3M exception but only $1.7M under tax now.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) August 12, 2014
Bird said he came away from meeting with Shawn Marion feeling like he was undecided but wanted to play on championship contender now.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) August 12, 2014
Even if they could land Marion, he's not a game-changer. He's a specialist, an aging role player good for roughly half of the minutes George would see at small forward.
Trades aren't going to produce much, either. Not even the most outlandish rumors have them acquiring the talent necessary to mitigate the damage George's absence invokes:
Lots of chatter about Greg Monroe today. Pacers shopping Hibbert and a source tells me they have called the Pistons about him. All I know.— Matt Dery (@dery1051) August 10, 2014
What the Pacers have now is what they will start next season with. Minor changes might be sprinkled in, but the foundation for 2014-15 has already taken shape.
And, like 8 Points 9 Seconds' Jared Wade admits, it's not particularly pretty:
One of the worst offenses in the league might unravel further without its only creator while the perimeter defense turns into a sieve. There is no Stephenson or George to belly up against all the elite wings in the NBA, and Hibbert is not literally a wall. It’s hard to see how the Mongols don’t overrun the paint.
This would leave Indiana with a good-not-great defense and a middling-to-OK offense.
This grisly picture Wade paints is the Pacers' best-case scenario. Keep that in mind. There's no guarantee their offense is "middling" next season. It was one of the worst in the league to close out 2013-14, and that was with George.
Losing him could ruin everything from the defense to the offense to any hope the Pacers have of maintaining a "middling" ceiling.
Time. The Pacers need time—time for George to heal, time to recover from this catastrophic offseason.
Nothing they do now will expedite the process. Tanking won't do it. Cleaning house won't, either.
Rallying the troops and playing inspired basketball won't even be enough.
These Pacers are limited by the abilities they have and the ones they've lost. Too much has come undone for them to put up a miraculous and uplifting fight. They lost George. They lost Stephenson. They lost so many luxuries.
Forfeiting such talent in volume is never a good sign; it's a devastating one. Nat Newell of The Indianapolis Star did some historical digging, and what he found only creates more cause for concern:
Five NBA teams have lost their leading scorer to injury (minimum 10 games) or free agency after posting a .660 winning percentage (roughly 55 wins) or better since the 1993-94 season.
Not surprisingly, the news is not encouraging: Those teams went from an average of 60 wins to 32.
Although the Pacers could be an exception, things aren't looking too good.
Stephenson and George represented 18.2 of the Pacers' 56 wins last season. When you combine the win shares of newcomers Stuckey and C.J. Miles, they don't even scratch the surface of what the team lost:
While it's certainly a rough way of looking at things, it's not absurd to think the absence of Stephenson and George will cost the Pacers at least 13 or 14 victories, as the difference in combined win shares indicates. Thinking of the Pacers as a 42- or 43-win team even feels optimistic.
But there are those out there who won't write them off completely. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com projects the Pacers as a 44-win club. The folks over at ESPN.com are predicting they'll be ninth in the Eastern Conference, eight spots lower than last year's No. 1 finish but still ahead of playoff hopefuls like the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons.
And yet the truth is no one can say there is an exact science to how far the Pacers will drop. Maybe they surprise some people, maybe they don't. Maybe the aforementioned forecasts are accurate or semi-accurate, maybe they're not.
There is still so much left to happen, so much left to see. Team president Larry Bird could blow this convocation up or try to improve it. Again, there's no way of knowing for sure.
What we do know is the Pacers are without George and Stephenson. We know that the Eastern Conference is stronger than last season. We know George's injury creates an obstacle that will spill over into 2015-16, when he (presumably) returns.
We know their current path is a rutted one, complete with a steep, downward spiral.
Where will the Pacers finish in the East without Paul George next season?
"My goal is to win as many games as we possibly can and get in the playoffs," Bird told reporters of the Pacers' immediate future. "I know some of our fans would rather us go in a different direction, but we’re here to win and we’re going to try to win."
Try as they might to win, to fight, the Pacers aren't built to match George's absence blow for blow.
Making the playoffs is out of the question. Finishing in the top 10 of a better Eastern Conference would be an accomplishment—one that doesn't incite cheers but provides hope that the Pacers' road back to relevancy is smoother than the jagged path to imminent obscurity they're traveling down now.